There is a corkboard here. On it, there is a paper doll of L., a friend from my grad school days. The doll features a pixie haircut, a polka-dot blouse, a pair of men’s pants. She is holding a bottle in her right hand, a book with a strawberry on it in her left hand. The bottle is labeled Hendricks Gin. The book is labeled Book. When L. sends me this doll, I understand immediately that it not holding a book illustrated with a strawberry; it is meant to represent a real book, upon which L. has placed a real strawberry. L.—the real L., the flesh-inhabiting L.—does this: she puts food onto pages, photographs the ensembles, documents how the juices stain the words.
The paper doll version of L. overlaps a page on which I’ve written I’ve hungered, have been well fed, my attempt to pen a six-word biography, a form that was trendy for about a minute many minutes ago.
There’s a fortune I got from a Chinese restaurant while attending a conference earlier this year: you are heading in the right direction. On the first night of the conference, I could not stop weeping, so my husband and I got take out rather than dining in. I ate the fortune cookie first, sitting in our car in the strip mall parking lot. I do not normally believe in fortunes, but I believed in this one, believed the only way was through. I leaned into my tears. I learned to carry tissues in each of my pockets, just in case.
Near the fortune are photographs of my younger brother, dead now for months: here he is as a second baseman who just won the college championship, here we are in the kitchen of our childhood. See how he sucks his thumb. See how he clings to my leg.
(You will want to know how my brother died, but that depends on who tells the story, and on where they begin the story. These are some ways that my brother died: a toddler in the kitchen, clinging/a former athlete/hit by a drunk driver who broke his neck/in his bedroom, injecting too much of the medicine they gave him after the wreck/in the hospital, where my father led us in the Lord’s Prayer before the nurse turned off the machines.)
On the corkboard, my brother is still alive.
The table under this corkboard is meant for dining. It was given to me by my grandparents years ago, back when I embarked on a different life with a different husband—a life I decided I did not really want, a husband who decided he did not really want me. Now, the table’s repurposed as my desk, here in the living room of the house I share with my new husband. We came to this town once, years before we thought of moving here, to see the grave of Stonewall Jackson’s arm. That’s not a typo: Jackson himself (most of him, at least) is buried elsewhere, but his arm remains here near our town, buried alone after its amputation. If you drive to the site of the grave—a plantation named Ellwood—you can hike out to the cemetery. I have been there in rain and snow, in sunlight and humidity. I have seen foxes and hawks. The cemetery holds only one marker: Arm of Stonewall Jackson, it reads.
So most of the time I write in a town that values history and fragmentation, at a table designed for another purpose, under a paper facsimile of my friend L., under an optimistic fortune, under images of my brother in the days before he became a shadow.
But there is also another corkboard in another room, a room where I go to write when my husband is home and wants to watch movies about a sadness I cannot shoulder in a language I cannot understand. This room has an actual desk, but it is piled with four years’ worth of tax returns, with postcards I mean to mail someday, with photocopies of all the versions of all the poems that Marianne Moore published between 1936 and 1941. That desk has no space for my laptop, so in this room where I come to be by myself, I do not write at my desk, but in an overstuffed chair that my dog believes is his own.
When I write in this chair, my dog will pad into the room and stand, watching me, as if he does not understand my presence. Sometimes he joins me in the chair, all fifty pounds of him balling into my lap, not content to see his space taken over. Sometimes I am drinking when I write—three ice cubes melting down into a generous pour of bourbon—and I place my glass on top of the bookshelf to the right of the chair, in front of a photograph of a Thoroughbred I loved, a stakes-winning colt named Natural Fact who fractured his skull, fatally, in a freak training accident back when I was in college.
I had known this horse since he was a foal, and when I was a teenager, I often wrote under an oak tree next to his paddock. He would wander over to my corner occasionally, straining his neck over the white four-board fence or poking his nose between its slats. I inched closer, stretching out my hand, remembering to straighten my fingers so if he tried to bite me, his teeth would find only a flatness—nothing they could grasp or hold.
Here in this other room, the corkboard hangs to the right of the chair my dog believes is rightfully his. This corkboard is covered in fabric, peppered with postcards: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Le Lit, the dome in St. Mark’s depicting Yeats’s sages and God’s holy fire, one of Delacroix’s lion hunts, Peter and Paul—Caravaggio’s matched pair, Mose T.’s Santa Claus—his right hand raised as if he were waving or taking an oath. I live under these postcards for years before I realize that the artists are all men. On the day when I finally realize this, I do not write anything. My laptop puts itself to sleep in my lap. I sit in my chair, not writing, for a very long time.